Dilemma of Civil Servant System Reform
Tags: 2017-07-11
Why is it difficult to reform the classified management system of civil service?

Since the reform and opening up, the personnel system of officials has undergone fundamental reforms in many respects in China, such as having introduced the practice of appointment through examinations, competitive selection, performance assessment, accountability system, and discipline and punishment system. But why is it still so difficult to reform the classified management systemof government officials, especially to carry out classified reforms in the mezzo and micro level, after having toiled for nearly three decades? How can we interpret the underlying logic? This article proposes an analytical framework based on the binary logic of rationality – politics after reviewing previous studies. Under this framework, the essay analyzes the process of the reform of personnel system for officials and illustrates the dilemma of the reform of classified management system for government and party officials.

The Analytic Framework based on the Binary Logic of Rationality – Politics
An important characteristics of public personnel management is that it need to strike a balance between the public interests, governmental institution’s interests and the interests of staff members. Generally speaking, the interests of staff members are mainly to maximize their compensations and benefits; the governmental institutions’ interests mainly are the maximization of efficiency; while the public interests are that public departments actively respond to the public demands and preference, and execute public power and provide public goods according to the will of the majority of people. The public interests are achieved through the responsibility chain that affairs officers are responsible to administrative officers and administrative officers are responsible to voters in the modern political system. Thus, that administrative officers have political control of affairs officers becomes an important link in the realization of public interests.

Since the protection mechanism of civil servants’ rights and interests has just begun in China, ordinary officials are usually in a disadvantaged position in the above three parties’ game fighting for interests. Thus, the focus of this game lies in the balance between political control and rationalization, the former representing the public interests, the later the institution’s interests. Rationality demonstrates the spirit of scientific management. It calls for the basic features of modern bureaucratic system in the governmental personnel management, including building a group of professional and unpartisan civil servants through political neutrality and appointment for a period, building a group of highly professional civil servants through position classification, competitive examinations and training, encouraging and controlling civil servants through implementing merit system in salary, promotion, reward and punishment. Political control is the response to democratic values and it demands a series of institutions in the governmental personnel management to ensure that civil servants respond to public needs. Classical institutions include appointing administrative officers and affairs officers to ensure that a responsibility chain is formed by the administrative officer, the affairs officer, and the voter. Besides, representative bureaucracy is also a part of the classical institutions. The demographic composition of civil servants (including the gender, ethnicity, nationality, social stratum, etc) can reflect the demographic features in the area, which helps the government integrate the opinions and preferences of different social groups into the public policies, thus demonstrating the characteristics of democratic politics. As democracy has a long way to go in China, political control usually takes the form of the ruling party’s control over the bureaucratic groups. By so doing, the ruling party can live up to its will and foster and control civil servants to meet the party’s needs. 

Apparently, rationality and political control are incongruous in many respects: rationality emphasizes administering affairs in accordance to the rules and regulations, while political control emphasizes political loyalty and soundness; what rationality emphasizes is professionalism, which help cultivate technocrats who administer affairs in conformity to professional standards and responsibility. This would inevitably diminish the political control exerted by the administrative officers.

In retrospect of the reform of personnel system for officials since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, it could be found that before the reform and opening up, the personnel system for officials reflected the logic of political control. Since the reform and opening up onwards, the personnel system of civil servants had tried to be rational and scientific. Although it evidently diminished in the beginning phase of reform and opening up, generally, the mentality of political control still predominated. This could be seen from two perspectives: firstly, it was reiterated and fortified that the party govern the cadres, and a great number of policies were made and executed to strengthen the supervision and management of cadres; secondly, if reforms that embody rationality diminished political control or failed to establish a corresponding political control system, the reforms would stagnate. On the contrary, rational reforms that went well almost have all found themselves on the way of political control. This is to say, China needs a vocational and professional group of civil servants, on the one hand, to meet its demands for professionalism and efficiency in the modern government management. On the other hand, China needs a group of civil servants that are controlled by the ruling party and responsive to the party’s core demands as a party politics country. It has always been the goal to maintain the balance between rationality and political control since the reform and opening up.
The Reform of Personnel System for Officials under the Logic of Rationality – Politics 
Since it took the ruling position in 1949, the Communist Party of China has always been in a dilemma. On the one hand, it needs powerful bureaucratic institutions to support its grand goals of nation construction with a planned system; one the other hand, its revolutionary ideology keeps itself alert to and critical of any bureaucratic institutions. Therefore, two contradictory processes can be found in Mao’s era: one is the efforts made in building a large bureaucracy and achieving rationality; the other is the continuous efforts made in debureaucratization or even anti-rationality. Before the Rectification Movement in 1957, these two processes happened consecutively, sometimes even simultaneously. After that, the process of rationalism generally stopped, and the logic of debureaucratization through political control gradually dominated.

The reform of personnel system for officials started to depoliticalize in China since the reform and opening up and gradually showed the pursuit and logic of rationality. This can be seen in the following respects: the transition from revolutionary cadres to technical bureaucrats; the assessment and incentive system mainly based on performance; the institutionalized system of officials’ training; the improvement of the institutionalized level of official management.

Although the reform of personnel system for officials started to become rational since the reform and opening up, the political control logic never abated and always remained dominating in general. This can be seen in the following respects: the ruling party’s continuous fortification of supervision and control over officials; the repeated reiteration of the principle that the party governs the officials and the expansion of its implications; the direction of rational reform maintained by political control. In overview of the reform of personnel system for officials, it is not difficult to find that all the reforms that went well were almost along with measures that fortified political control. On the contrary, if the reforms cannot find the appropriate mechanism that ensures political control, the reforms would stagnate. Therefore, we can observe that the party takes the leadership and exerts control as, on the one hand, civil servants are recruited through competitive examinations, while, on the other, the examination candidates are confined to low posts and selected by entry qualifications and the design of examination content; one the one hand, a large quantity of techniques and methods of modern performance assessment have been introduced, but on the other, the ruling party controls the design of performance contracts; on the one hand, competitive selection decides promotion, on the other, the importance of party inspection and the party committee’s decision is highlighted in the competitive selection; on the one hand, it is promoted to train officials, on the other, traditional way of training and education still remain.

Notably, competitive selection has undergone tremendous adjustments since the 18th CPC National Congress. In the 3rd Plenary Session of the 18th CPC National Congress, it was proposed to adhere to the principle that the party governs the officials and to further reform of personnel system for officials, so as to construct an effective, easy and simple mechanism for selection and appointment. Moreover, the heads of party committees should supervise talent selection. Party committees, responsible leaders and organizations should be given more weight in selecting and assessing. Talents are not selected solely by votes and grades. After President Xi Jinping delivered an important speech on the National Organization Work Conference in 2013, competitive selection quickly slowed down across the country. In fact, this process reflects the sway between rationality and political control in the reform of personnel system for officials, so as to achieve the balance.

In the respect of cadre training, although a cadre training system has primarily been established, it can be seen that continuous efforts have been made to upgrade cadres’ knowledge, ability and quality  by improving training organizations, training content, training methods, training subjects and the number of training subjects. However, the ruling party tries every means to ensure its leading role and control of the cadre training in this process, so as to build up a group of officials who sticks to the socialist road with Chinese characteristics, and serves the people wholeheartedly, and who has ability and morality to meet the needs of the reform and opening up and of the modernization development.


Inefficient political control mechanism makes it difficult to reform the classified management system of party and government officials
Following the logic of the foregoing analysis, the key reason why the reform of personnel system for officials fails to make significant progress after nearly three decades, especially in the mezzo and micro level, lies in the ruling party’s failure in finding a matching mechanism for political control.

Nowadays, Chinese officials are mainly comprised of elites who have attended universities. However, as the system of officials in China bears such characteristics, officials still have not become a highly professionalized group. Firstly, China hasn’t established a job classification system with the basic characteristics of horizontal profession division. Secondly, exchanges of civil servants are part of Chinese civil servant system. As exchanges are to a great extent used as an important means to train officials and curb corruption, the ratio of civil servants’ job rotation is quite high, and such exchanges and job rotation are not confined to a certain type of officials. Under this system, what are produced are not professional and vocational technocrats, but compound and adaptable generalists. Once the job classification system is established, what comes along is the limit of cross-category exchanges, and the tension and conflict between professional specialization and political control will emerge. How can it be possible to mitigate the conflict under the background of Chinese system?

On July 2017, after eleven years’ trail, The Management Regulation of Professional and Technical Civil Servants (Trail) and The Management Regulation of Administrative and Law Enforcing Civil Servants (Trail) (hereinafter referred to as “two management regulations”) were officially enacted. Three ways can be seen in the two management regulations to mitigate the conflict. Firstly, the two management regulations both especially highlight “the principle that the party governs the officials and the requirement of both ability and morality with morality prior to ability.” Secondly, the two management regulations didn’t further distinguish the post group and post type within the category of the professional and technical civil servants or the category of administrative and law enforcing civil servants. Post titles are given in general titles. This means that up to now the horizontal categorization of civil servant posts in China is still very rough and the level of professionalism is very low. There is a long way to achieve a genuine classified post system. Thirdly, although it is stipulated in the two management regulations that transfer of civil servants is generally within their post category, institutional channels are kept for cross-category transfers in the two management regulation, as it says that job transfers are allowed if work demands and the rank is assigned in consideration of work experience. This doesn’t comply to the principle of starting from the bottom, i.e., an official must start from the lowest position ( the clerk or the seventh grade enforcement officer) and the time of service and salary should also start anew, no matter what the rank he or she was. Under the background of China where exchanges of civil servants are highlighted, this provision means that China wouldn’t establish a chimney career mode for civil servants or equip itself with a group of highly professional civil servants. China is toiling slowly on the way to classified position system.

(A phase achievement of a National Social Science Foundation Project: Studies of the Classified Management System of Government and Party Officials ( Project No. 10BZZ018) )
Note: Excerpt from The Rationality – Politics Logic of the Classified Management System of Chinese Government and Party Officials, XueHai, N0. 5, 2016.

[1] Classification of officials can be made in macro, mezzo, and micro levels. On the macro level, officials are classified by the nature and function of the institutions (organizations) to which they belong, such as officers of the party and government organizations, officers of state-owned enterprises and public institutions. This article only studies the classification management of officers of party and government organizations. In the broad sense, party and government organizations include the party’s institutions, the People’s Congress institutions, administrative institutions, political consultation institutions, judicial institutions, prosecution institutions, etc. Hence, party and government officers are generally equal to the concept of civil servant stipulated in the Civil Servants Law. Therefore, the concept of party and government officers is interchangeable with that of civil servants hereinafter. On the mezzo level, classification is made within the three categories of officers above. For example, party and government officers can be divided into officers in charge of government affairs, of services and of appointment according to the way how officers are made. On the micro level, classification is made on the basis of the classification made on the mezzo level. For example, party and government officers are divided into government affairs and services, and officers of services can be divided horizontally and vertically.